The religious teaching of Seneca and Epictetus11 min read

When Christianity came into the world, the way had, in a sense, been prepared for it. If you come to think of it, no religion could so rapidly have spread as Christianity spread in the Roman Empire unless it spoke a language which men understood. Its message in fact, both as regards moral conduct and as regards divine aspiration, fulfilled a spiritual need of which men were already conscious. And, in fact, if we read Seneca or Epictetus, for both of whom, as we shall see, Stoicism had been permeated with personal religion, we shall find sound doctrine upon both the branches into which the Catechism dichotomises conduct. Both our duty towards God and our duty towards our neighbour are nobly and adequately treated. “ Philosophy ” wrote Seneca “ has taught us to worship that which is divine, to love that which is human. She has told us that with the gods lies dominion, and among men, fellowship ”.

But before we embark on our examination let me remind you who these people were. L. Annaeus Seneca was a Spaniard, one of the new provincial aristocracy. He was an orator of distinction, he wrote tragedies which were subsequently to have a formative influence upon the development of European drama, he was what we should call a Minister of State, he wrote a number of treatises on moral philosophy, and was the author of a series of letters to his friend Lucilius which discuss moral and religious topics. He was the uncle of the poet Lucan and the brother of the Gallio who is mentioned in the Acts. He was born in 4 b.c. He spent eight years in exile during Claudius’ reign, but returned to become tutor to the young Nero. During the first five years of Nero’s reign, years on the whole happy and prosperous, Seneca and Burrus the Prefect of the Pretorian Guard were the powers behind the throne. Subsequently he fell into disfavour, he was accused of being implicated in a conspiracy, and was forced to commit suicide in a.d. 65.

Epictetus, whose floruit lies between 50 and 120 a.d., was a lame Phrygian slave belonging to Nero’s freedman Epaphroditus. After obtaining his manumission he set up a school in Rome. Under a decree of Domitian for the expulsion of all philosophers he left Rome and went to Nicopolis in Epirus on the opposite shore to Brindisi. Here he was visited by pupils from all over the Empire. He wrote no books, but his teaching has survived in the notes made of his lectures by a young man called Arrian who afterwards had a distinguished career in the public service and became governor of Cappadocia. Neither Stoic was familiar with Christianity. In Epictetus there is one casual reference to Galileans by which Christians may be meant. There is, I think, no evidence that Seneca had heard of Christianity.

At that time the real religion of the educated classes was philosophy. The forms and observances of traditional worship were carried out as part of social duty, and the Greek, and still more the Roman, had a sentimental conservatism deep-rooted in his nature. But educated people in the 1st century a.d. did not believe in a multiplicity of of anthropomorphic deities incessantly interfering with the laws of nature. The gods of classical mythology were explained as allegories or symbols. Even the mystery religions were not exclusive and tended to represent the particular deity invoked as the most powerful of the aspects of a universal God. Thus in Apuleius, Isis declares “ the whole earth worships my godhead, one and individual, under many a changing shape, with various rites and by many divine names. There the Phrygians call me Mother of the Gods, there the Athenians know me as Cecropian Minerva,” and so on through a catalogue which ends “ the Egyptians, mighty in ancient lore, honour me with very peculiar rites and call me by my true name, Isis the Queen ”. Thus Epictetus and Seneca use indifferently the terms of “ the gods ” or “ Zeus ” or “ God ”, but they mean by them the same thing, viz. the Divine Principle, immanent in the universe.

The Stoic system was based upon a logical and coherent explanation of a geo-centric universe. The regular movements of the heavenly bodies and the recurrent operations of nature were in themselves evidence of Design or Rational purpose and hence of the existence of a Divine Principle. But the universe is one. God is not for the Stoic, as for the Platonist, transcendent, but is immanent. The Divine Principle, that is to say, is present in the whole universe and in every individual. Man is a microcosm and in him, as in the macrocosm, is present this divine element. This the earlier Stoics conceived as consisting of an extremely tenuous fiery substance. As divine parts of a divine unverse all men are brothers. The slave and the emperor equally are men, their respective degrees of rank, wealth, etc. are irrelevant. Although the conception of the universe is determinist, man retains his free will. He cannot indeed alter circumstance, but he can struggle with evil, and cultivate his will. By choosing right action instead of wrong, he can place himself in harmony with the Divine Principle and he can teach himself by learning real values to ignore the inessential.

The good of anything is to realise its essential being. Now what distinguishes man from animals or objects is the possession of rational will. In the exercise of this divine quality therefore lies his good. Everything else is irrelevant. Only by the exercise of moral purpose can he fulfil the essential nature of his being. The good man can be happy on the rack because he realises that his pains are “ unreal ” when weighed in the scale of philosophic value. Apparent evil is not real evil when seen in relation to the great whole. “ Slave ”, says Epictetus, alluding to his lameness, “ do you mean to arraign the universe for one wretched leg ? Will you not make a gift of it to the sum of things ? . . . Do you not know what a little part you are compared with the sum of things ? ” Evil is there to be overcome, otherwise there would be no moral progress. We are God’s athletes. “ What do you think ” he asks * “ would have become of Herakles if there had not been a lion ? ”

Virtue is its own reward, at any rate for Epictetus. Happiness is conformity to the Divine Order, unison with God. For arid though the Stoic system appears to be, it became shot through with longing for union with God. Epictetus holds out no hope of personal immortality, but if the surrender to God is complete you will be happy.

“ When you have a Leader such as this and identify your will with His you need never feel failure any more “ What else can a lone old man as I am do but chant the praise of God ! If indeed I were a nightingale I should sing as a nightingale, if a swan as a swan, but as I am a rational creature I must praise God. This is my task and I do it ; and I will not abandon this duty, so long as it is given me ; and I invite you all to join in this same song There are duties to be performed in life. It may not lightly be thrown away and the good man will wait upon God until He gives the signal to depart. But when the time comes, Death is not to be feared. “ When He sounds the recall, He opens the door and says ‘ Come ’. ‘ Where ? ’ To nothing you need fear but to that whence you were born, to your friends and kindred elements . . . There is no Hades nor Acheron nor Cocytus nor Puriphlegethon but all is full of God and divine beings. When one has this to think upon and when he beholds the sun and moon and stars and enjoys land and sea, he is not forlorn any more than he is destitute of help ”.

For Seneca and Epictetus man is part of the Universe and God is in him as God is in the Universe. “ No man ”, writes Seneca, “ does wrong in attempting to regain the heights from which he once came down. And why should you not believe that something of divinity exists in one who is a part of God ? All this Universe which encompasses us is one, and it is God ; we are associates of God. We are members of Him ”. God is in us, nothing is hid from Him for He is in our souls. “ Therefore ”, says Epictetus, “ when you close your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say you are alone. You are not alone, God is within ”. Seneca says the same. “ What avails it that something is hidden from man ? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and He comes into the very midst of our thoughts ”. Hence “ we do not need to lift our hands towards heaven or to beg the keeper of a temple to let us approach his idol’s ear as if in this way our prayer was more likely to be heard. God is near you, He is with you, He is within you ”.

The good man will thus be constantly conscious of the presence of God and will strive to imitate Him. For success the first step is to face the fact of sin in ourselves. “ It is no good saying I am not extravagant but mere living in a great city demands outlay    . It is not my fault that I have a choleric disposition ” and so on. “ Why do we deceive ourselves ? The evil that afflicts us is not external, it is within us, situated in our very vitals ; for that reason we attain soundness with all the more difficulty because we do not know that we are diseased Or again : “ Why will no man confess his faults ? Because he is still in their grasp ; only he who is awake can recount his dream and similarly a confession of sin is a proof of sound mind ”. “ I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed but transformed. . . . This very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better—that it can see its own faults of which it was previously ignorant ”.

How is sin to be eradicated and the imitation of God to be achieved ? By the study and practice of philosophy which will enable us to shake off the unreal nightmare of the sinful life and wake us into the life of reality. I said of purpose the study and practice of philosophy, for education is not merely a question of passing examination papers nor of ability to give a verbal exhibition of knowledge. “ Sheep ”, said Epictetus, “ do not bring up grass to their shepherds and show them how much they have eaten, but they digest the fodder and then produce it in the form of wool and milk. Do the same yourself ; instead of displaying your principles to the multitudes show them the results of the principles you have digested ”.

In moral education Epictetus lays stress upon the formation of good habits and the suppression of desires, which can be acquired by practice. Askesis, i.e. exercises of self-denial, asceticism, in our sense, may be a useful aid in training. The value of “ retreat ” is recognised. But it must be a real withdrawal to a stable concentration, not a restless wandering about. Of course, retreat into solitude has its dangers and opportunities for self-deception and these are the theme of a treatise of Dio Chrysostom, who points out that the counsel of perfection is retreat into yourself ; “ whether you are in Babylon or Athens makes no real difference then ”. “ You must either imitate or loathe the world. But both courses are to be avoided ; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you.

Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual, for men learn while they teach ”.

Both Seneca and Epictetus held that while the good man has this inner life he will do his duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call him. He will thus be acting appropriately in harmony with the Universe, and so be doing the will of God.